Students drown in debt and Academe suffers

College enrollment overall is on the rise, but recession-weary and debt-wary students are being choosier when it comes to selecting academic institutions. But so too, are colleges becoming more selective about admitting students, increasingly putting an emphasis on those they believe can pay their bills and complete a degree. When money -- tuition -- dictates the student body, what happens to the quality of education?

Enrollment is up at public universities and many community colleges these days are considered a smart, affordable option. A Pew Research report tracks a surge in community college attendance coinciding with the recession, and it's a trend continuing this year as public universities benefit at the expense of pricier private institutions. There are exceptions of course, as it seems the coveted Ivy League and comparable institutions continue to attract students -- even in record numbers -- regardless of cost.

But by and large, private colleges and universities are struggling to maintain numbers. At Columbia College Chicago where I teach a journalism course as an adjunct professor, everyone seems to be walking on pins and needles. Three years ago, when I taught my first class -- Introduction to Journalism -- students registered fast and furious. Columbia is an open-enrollment school with no registration deadline. Class sections were being added up until the week school started and there were so many freshman and sophomore journalism students that I wondered where they would all find work in a contracting industry.

Then the bottom the fell out of the economy. Students had a harder time getting loans, parents were no longer in a position to help out financially and kids became more discerning about their areas of study. The media arts in general -- and journalism specifically -- aren't good bets, and students today can't afford to be too idealistic. Not in this economy. The perhaps-morbid website (also known as "Paper Cuts") tracks the layoff action. It reports that in 2009, close to 15,000 journalists got laid off.

Whatever the numbers, I wondered if there was a correlation between the quality of the programs and a school's attempt to woo students. It is after all, a supply and demand situation.

"It's a very complex question and there's a series of interrelated situations going on," says John C. Keller PhD, Associate Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Iowa (my alumna mater). "Individuals are graduating with huge debt loads at all levels, from all types of schools. The average debt load of undergraduates really puts a crimp on the interest of students."

At UI, applications are up almost 20% but enrollment is down, thanks to less available funding, says Keller. What's really hurting, though, are students seeking advanced degrees. According to Keller, "We're looking at another year of record enrollment this fall at the undergraduate level. Professional masters (applications) are up, but students pursuing doctoral programs are down largely due to funding." Students seeking advanced degrees also pay more in tuition than undergrads, placing even more budgetary pressure on colleges and the students who pay the inevitable price in increased tuition.

Academically, thriving graduate programs fuels a school's prestige and ability to attract students at all levels. Research institutions can't run without grad students. Imagine the implications of future scientific research being affected because of tuition issues. And the decline in graduate students changes the way a large public university such as UI delivers undergraduate instruction.

Class sizes are larger and fewer sections are being taught by teaching assistants -- the graduate students. At the college where I teach, fewer sections are offered and class sizes have swelled. Adjunct professors like myself are being cut, and full-time faculty are taking on more responsibility. A reduction in adjuncts is a real loss to the student body, which benefits from their real world experience and connections, while the pressure and time constraints now placed on full-time faculty will surely manifest itself in fewer hours left for one-on-one instruction and mentoring.

As a result, colleges seeking to maintain tuition proceeds are paying closer attention to the types of students they select. A recent story in USA Today, outlines the importance of a college's yield -- the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll in a college. Colleges are being more selective by admitting students they believe will attend the school, bringing in tuition money and maintaining whatever prestige the yield affords.

But there are even more disturbing implications relating to escalating tuition and student's increased inability to afford higher education: a rising sentiment at academic institutions to skew admittance to those who can pay for it.

At UI, there's a focus on helping existing students to complete their degrees and admit only those who are financially able to see theirs through. Says Keller, "We've made an agreement that if students aren't getting through the program, that all other things being equal, we'd support current student to make sure they finish the program rather than take on new students." That's not true of students who have financial support in the form of fellowships, but "we would much rather have students come in with the support than not to ensure completion."

What happens to education when those who can't pay with certainty aren't admitted? It's too terrifying to contemplate, but with tuition skyrocketing, could it be inevitable?

Laura Heller is a WalletPop writer, an editor with Money College and a journalism instructor at Columbia College Chicago.
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